Sunday 26 May 2024

A Brighter Tomorrow [2023]

 Nanni Moretti’s funny, whimsical and delectably messy A Brighter Tomorrow is as much a return to the wry, verbose and self-reflexive films of his past – it’s filled with infectious references to his greatest hits like Dear Diary, April, etc. – as a self-deprecating expression of his being out of sync with the world around him and his inability to fit in anymore, leading to both professional and existential crises. Furthermore, aside from its metatextual elements, ironic self-critiques, impish personal absorptions and unabashed self-indulgences, it’s also a loving evocation of his left-wing political ideals. Giovanni (Moretti’s quintessentially neurotic, cantankerous and chatterbox filmmaker alter-ego, played by himself) is shooting a film around the tremendous moral crisis faced by a L'Unità’s editor (Silvio Orlando) upon being urged by his defiant secretary/fiancée (Barbora Bobulova) to show solidarity with a traveling circus troupe in response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which ultimately leads to the Italian Communist Party’s forging a new path. He’s constantly distracted, however, because of multiple reasons – his luminous wife (Margherita Buy), who’s produced all his films so far, is planning to divorce him, as he sucks the oxygen out of the room; his lead actress keeps improvising to his chagrin; he’s heavily tempted to make a rom-com and an adaptation of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; and the arrest of his dubious French producer (Mathieu Amalric) has left him in a lurch. The film is filled with hilarious digressions, including Giovanni halting the shooting of an action-thriller movie for an all-night diatribe on its problematic display of violence, and his riotous tryst with Netflix. The elegiac finale, one hopes, isn’t indicative of Moretti’s plans to walk into the sunset.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Film a Clef

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Friday 24 May 2024

The Delinquents [2023]

 Argentine filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno’s beguiling and enthralling anti-heist film The Delinquents seemed like a piquant blend of Godard’s radical and subversive flourishes, Rohmer’s freewheeling and enchanting levity, and Jarmusch’s seriocomic existentialist fables. This playful, languorous and intoxicating inversion of the classic crime caper – overturning genre conventions and sidestepping viewer expectations over its leisurely 3-hour runtime – also threw ironic jabs at corporate drudgery, work-life balance, midlife crisis, stifling urban monotony, the futility of meticulous planning and how the desire for escape doesn’t always exactly translate into one. Morán (Daniel Elías), who’s stuck in a dull and tedious clerical job in a bank in Buenos Aires, hatches a ludicrous plan in his defiant pursuit for freedom. He exploits a fortuitous scenario to steal $650,000 – just enough to compensate earnings until retirement for two persons – and slyly convinces his colleague Román (Esteban Bigliardi) to hold the loot, in lieu of 50% share for effectively doing nothing, while he serves what he expects to be a reduced prison sentence. Life, however, never follows a linear path, as Morán encounters the brutish prison boss Garrincha (Germán de Silva), while Román faces an equally torrid in office thanks to their vindictive boss (de Silva, in a dual role), a tough insurance investigator (Laura Paredes), crumbling domestic life and anxiety. To complicate things further, both are in love with the vivacious and carefree Norma (Margarita Molfino). The film’s many delightful attributes include Morán finding solace through Ricard Zelarayán’s hypnotic longform poem “The Great Salt Flats”; absorbing use of jazz, blues and tango scores; quirky conversations and digressions; elaborate fades and dissolves separating its gorgeously photographed sequences; and anagrammatic names, doppelgängers and such eccentric gestures from Moreno.

Director: Rodrigo Moreno

Genre: Crime Comedy/Existential Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Kidnapped (Rapito) [2023]

 Marco Bellocchio’s baroque and magnetic film Kidnapped – made in the grand tradition of operatic and opulent historical melodramas – is a ferocious retelling of an unsettling true story from mid-19th century papal history. Through this recounting of a very specific event – that of the abduction of a Jewish kid by the Vatican, under the direct order of Pope Pius IX, to raise him as a Christian – the Octogenarian Italian filmmaker captured as much that historic Italian milieu which was about to be radically transformed by the forthcoming Risorgimento, an event that’d received its most unforgettable cinematic representations in Visconti’s Senso and The Leopard, as a portrayal of theocratic tyranny, discrimination against those deemed subhuman and their ghettoization by those with political might, which remain even more violently topical and relevant today. The story begins in 1858 when Edgardo Mortara (played by Enea Sala as kid and Leonardo Maltese as young adult), the sixth child of a well-off Jewish family from Bologna, is forcibly taken away by the church and relocated to Rome as, seven years back, a maid had ostensibly baptised him in secrecy. The “Mortara Case” mobilized the Jewish community and gained international attention thanks to the relentless efforts of the devastated parents (magnificently played by Fausto Russo Alesi and Barbara Ronchi). The baleful Pius IX (enacted with slimy and feral brilliance by Paolo Pierobon), however, is unmoved, and ruthlessly ensures Edgardo’s continued indoctrination, which leads his growing up as a heartbreakingly conflicted young man who’s doomed to be neither here nor there. Filmed with stunning audiovisual and aesthetic flourishes, this rich and complex tapestry reached a feverish crescendo in Bellochhio’s hands before ending on a deeply poignant note.

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Sunday 19 May 2024

El Juicio (The Trial) [2023]

 1985 was a momentous year for Argentina – and a beacon of hope for her Latin American comrades – since just 2 years out of an exceptionally repressive right-wing military dictatorship, its judiciary put the junta’s top brass, including Jorge Rafael Videla, on trial for their ghastly crimes – one that’s drawn comparisons with the Nuremberg Trials for its significance and breadth – and that too in civil court. Though televised for posterity, the recordings unfortunately remained largely unseen. Ulises de la Orden took help of the human rights group Memória Abierta and the Norwegian Parliament to access the magnetic tapes, and then spent a decade sifting through 530 hours of footage and rendering them into 3 hours of immensely powerful and profoundly sobering memorialization that attests to collective resistance through remembrance. Structured into 18 chapters – each touching upon specific aspects of the state-sponsored violations that occurred during the “Dirty War”, from the grotesque to the baroque, including such events as “Night of the Pencils” and “Night of the Ties” – this collage of analogue videos, its historical vitality and political immediacy aside, made for a surprisingly engrossing work purely through an archival assemblage. While maximum screen-time is accorded to victims, survivors and relatives recounting their horrific sufferings and loss, it also regularly peeked into all the present stakeholders, viz. the heroic prosecuting duo of Strassera and Ocampo; the obnoxious and indifferent defendants; the morally bankrupt defence attorneys; the weary judges; and the emotionally invested attendees. The eruption that breaks upon Strassera’s stirring closing argument, where he turned “¡Nunca Más!” (“Never Again”) into a rallying cry of protest and defiance, leaves a lasting impression. Mitre’s engaging film Argentina, 1985, incidentally, chronicled the same subject.

Director: Ulises de la Orden

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros [2023]

 The 50th directorial effort of legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman – and his fourth exploration of French cultural institutes, having delved into the fabled theatre Comédie Française, the famous Paris Opera and the risqué Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse – is a pleasantly immersive and painstakingly detailed observational study into the Troisgros family’s acclaimed restaurant “Le Bois sans Feuilles”, which has held onto its Michelin 3-Star certification for over 50 years. This rigorous examination of the myriad aspects that go into its running – from locally sourcing its diverse ingredients, planning its eclectic menu and ensuring readiness to cooking at its massive kitchen, exquisite plating and serving blockbuster dishes to its patrons – made for a complete contrast to the frenetic and hyper-competitive shows that dominate reality television. With a mammoth runtime of 4 hours, culled from around 130 hours of footage shot by stationing himself here for 3 months, it didn’t just peek into this exclusive establishment of gourmet cuisines located amidst tranquil surroundings in Roanne, it also wandered into associated establishments that feed into it like beef cattle farms, cheese ageing units, vineyards, etc. Its central protagonist is the genial and ageing paterfamilias Michel, a well-known chef and third-generation proprietor who’s transitioning this culinary legacy to his stolid eldest son César. We’re also introduced to his wife Marie-Pierre who manages a boutique hotel and his younger son Léo who leads a sister joint. The film’s most captivating sections silently observed the unflagging upholding of their creative standards, be it the three Troisgros men engaged in restrained brainstorming on ingredients, preparations and flavours – thus elucidating their distinctive styles and preferences – or collaborative involvements behind the scenes or regaling the guests with anecdotes and recommendations.

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Genre: Documentary

Language: French

Country: France

Monday 13 May 2024

Occupied City [2023]

 Steve McQueen’s shattering “city symphony” Occupied City is a powerful act of remembering, and rigorous preservation of cultural memory of Amsterdam during Nazi occupation. Based on “Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945” – the encyclopaedic tome by Dutch historian Bianca Stigter, who’s also McQueen’s wife and creative partner – the British filmmaker shot a staggering 36 hours of footage capturing all the 2000-plus addresses recorded in it, which he then edited into this mammoth 4-hour documentary covering 130 of those sites. This extraordinary memorialization of that grotesque period was made particularly haunting by its juxtaposition of ghosts of the past – catalogued by Melanie Hyams’s eerily neutral narration – with images of present-day Amsterdam that he shot in 35mm through the pandemic and beyond. The voiceover chronicled anecdotes of execution and deportation, collusion and betrayal, desperation and survival, and even defiance and resistance; the visuals, conversely, ranged from freewheeling depictions of people engaged in activities unsettlingly incongruous to what had transpired at those locations, albeit separated by time, to present-day demonstrations, including dissenting against lockdowns, acknowledging Dutch slave-trades, climate justice rallies, and solidarity  with immigrant and Palestinian rights. These, in turn, were interspersed with couple of hypnotic tracking shots of night and daytime streets. While McQueen’s avoidance of archival footage has drawn comparisons with Lanzamann’s monumental Holocaust treatise Shoah, I found it formally closer to Perel’s scalding docu Corporate Accountability – a cutting exposé on how corporations enabled repression and enforced disappearances during the military dictatorship in Argentina – in their smashing of past and present. The director, incidentally, came to know during the filming that the schools that his daughter and son attend were once the SS headquarters and a Nazi-run prison, respectively.

Director: Steve McQueen

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: English/Dutch

Country: Netherlands

Saturday 11 May 2024

Our Body (Notre Corps) [2023]

 Claire Simon’s courageously conceived and audaciously mounted documentary Our Body is bound to draw parallels with Wiseman’s works for its deeply observant and quietly kaleidoscopic recording of a multi-hued institution, fly-on-the-wall approach, and expansive length. The aesthetic and formal resemblances notwithstanding, it was vastly different in its profoundly intimate and defiantly feminist foregrounding on women’s body – the personal, the collective and the political – and the associated aspects of health, agency, vulnerabilities and unavoidable bodily changes portrayed with the radical empathy of female gaze, and therefore shorn of both sexualization and stigmatization, as opposed to a Wiseman-esque exploration of the medical institution in which it unfolded. And, in what carved an especially singular space for it, Simon even trained the camera on herself like she did on others upon being diagnosed with breast cancer during the course of its filming, and both physically and emotionally bared herself in a manner that unequivocally established her extraordinary dare and moral strength. Set in the gynaecology ward of a public hospital in Paris, it covered – over the course of its nearly three-hour runtime, and by progressing from the very young to the heavily aged – a staggering breath of intensely personal medical consultations, diagnoses, procedures and caregiving. The topics included unplanned teenage pregnancies and abortions, trans-men and trans-women both planning for and having undergone gender changes, coital difficulties, natural and C-section childbirths, fertility and postpartum treatments, detections of and surgical interventions for cancer and other maladies, prognoses that’re both hopeful and dire, and illnesses that’re curable as well as terminal. Admittedly, though, it’s difficult to ascertain to what extent the interactions were influenced – consciously or otherwise – by their unravelling in front of Simon’s camera.

Director: Claire Simon

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Feminist Film

Language: French

Country: France

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Coup de Chance [2023]

 Woody Allen, who’s long pared down his craft to a stupefying obsession that’s quite rare in the history of this medium, undeterred by even the cancel culture that’s relentlessly hounding him, has reached the phenomenal milestone of 50 films as writer-director with Coup de Chance. His 1st film that’s wholly made in a non-English language is an enchanting revisit of two themes that the 88-year-old filmmaker has previously explored – masterfully in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, and compellingly in Cassandra’s Dream and Irrational Man – albeit made almost in a self-mocking vein, viz. getting away with murder and the arbitrariness of existence. Harbouring the quintessential Woody touch of a jazzy, free-spirited air overlayed on a tightly scripted base, it begins on a captivating note when, while walking along the Parisian streets to the art auction house where she works, the stunning Fanny (Lou de Laâge) runs into Alain (Niels Schneider), an aspiring writer and an old acquaintance carrying a torch for her since long. This chance encounter awakens a repressed freewheeling side in her, and the two begin a passionate love affair. She, however, is married to Jean (Melvil Poupaud), a debonair and super-wealthy man. He, unfortunately, has a shady past, a sinister side and is insanely possessive of his wife. Murder, inevitably, is on the cards. Though far from being among Woody’s best efforts – his finest hour, for us who’ve so deeply loved his works, is indisputably in the past – it was still a delectably wry, self-aware and luminously photographed film. If this turns out to be the swansong for this great artist who’s fast losing his desire to continue, it’s definitely a commendable way to go out.

Director: Woody Allen

Genre: Crime Thriller/Romantic Comedy/Marital Comedy

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 4 May 2024

American Fiction [2023]

 Rarely have I postponed the viewing of a film to read the book that it’s based on; rarer still is “discovering” an accomplished author in the process and then going on to admire the film as well. In his excellent 2001 novel Erasure, which I read last month, Percival Everett had served a wickedly funny satire on commodified representation of subaltern experiences by the cultural landscape in order to pander to white/liberal guilt, along with an elegiac portrayal of a man traversing through personal, professional, familial and existential crises. American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s incisive and crackling directorial debut, mirrored the book’s themes, tones, wit, irony and underlying sense of being lost, while also carving its identity. Its richness was displayed through both its conscious convergences and playful departures. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an African-American writer and literature professor whose life’s in a precarious state – his editor is unable to have his erudite books sold as they’re lacking in “Black Experience”; he’s forced into sabbatical for alienating his students; his mom is slipping into Alzheimer’s that necessitates expensive care; his sister has unexpectedly died; his brother has just come out as gay; and he’s getting to know his late father’s extra-marital secrets. When an African-American woman achieves significant fame for a book that, Monk feels, is exploitative and stereotypical, he too decides – as an expression of his anger and disgust – to pseudonymously speed-write one; contrary to his wildest imaginations, however, it becomes a smash hit. Led by Wright’s stunningly layered performance and commendable support turns, and accompanied by a captivating jazz-based soundtrack, the film was especially striking in its impishly brilliant and metatextual reworking/extension of the book’s finale.

Director: Cord Jefferson

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Social Satire/Family Drama

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World [2023]

 Radu Jude reaffirmed his position as a defiantly radical and daring filmmaker with this dazzling and damning work that combined cutting satire, outrageous humour, dizzying metatextual references, scalding political commentaries, and subversive neo-Marxian dialectics. These, along with its multi-segmental structure and anarchic experimentations, made this a striking follow-up to his fabulous previous film Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is an underpaid, overworked production assistant who drives around Bucharest auditioning victims of workplace accidents, for a dubious corporate documentary sponsored by an Austrian organization. Filmed in low-fi B/W capturing her gig employment, this strand is frequently intercut with two seemingly dissonant threads – parodic and inflammatory TikTok videos, shot in saturated colours, that Angela makes as a side hustle, using a sleazy, trash talking, misogynistic, neo-Nazi alter-ego called Bobiță; and snippets from the feminist Ceaușescu-era film Angela Moves On, shot in glorious retro colours, featuring a lonely woman taxi driver (Dorina Lazar). They ultimately coalesced into the bleakly funny final segment – a bravura 40-minute single-take static sequence – showing how a wheelchair-bound man is craftily coerced into presenting a false narrative in the said promotional movie, wherein the blame is conveniently shifted from the employer to him, and his agency too is stripped in the process. With references ranging from Goethe and Lumière to Godard and Dylan, this 3-hour epic comprised of deadpan detours – as in a rambling conversation with a corporate exec (Nina Hoss) that segues into a silent tracking shot memorializing vehicular casualties – and dealt with neoliberalism, exploitation, discrimination, media manipulation, cultural toxicity, war, fascism, etc. The film, interestingly, featured self-reflexive cameos by hack director Uwe Boll and Lazar reprising her role from the referenced film.

Director: Radu Jude

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire

Language: Romanian/English

Country: Romania

Saturday 27 April 2024

The Plough (Le Grand Chariot) [2023]

 Love, family, friendship and the passion for one’s craft were the overarching themes in The Plough, another delicately textured entry to the quintessential Garrelian universe, with its interplay of melancholy and sensuousness, delineations of bohemian artists and drifting lovers with intimate brushstrokes, romantic entanglements and infidelities (portrayed with restraint, the messy repercussions notwithstanding), understated elegy to the irrevocable passing of time, and, most importantly, the inherently self-reflexive form. Autofiction has been a running thread in his filmography – stringing together tapestries informed by intensely personal facets from his life – which his latest work embraced with understated ardour. The minimalist narrative is centred on a family-run puppeteer troupe – adored paterfamilias (Aurélien Recoing); his children Louis (Louis Garrel), Martha (Esther Garrel) and Lena (Lena Garrel); and aged grandmother (Francine Bergé) – who’re bound to this charmingly antiquated artform. When the father suddenly dies, however, the group starts drifting apart – Louis quits to pursue career in acting; Martha, unable to move on, decides to run the show along with the politically active Lena despite the acute financial woes; Peter (Damien Mongin), Louis’ mercurial friend who’d joined the group, renews his self-destructive tryst with painting; and the eccentric granny, a left-wing nonconformist, starts slipping into dementia. Garrel’s first film in colour since the exquisite A Burning Hot Summer, it gently nodded to his late father Maurice who was a puppeteer before becoming an actor; furthermore, the siblings were played by his own children; Aurélien’s father Alain, meanwhile, was Maurice’s colleague during their puppeteering days. Mortality was a recurring motif too; aside from the two onscreen deaths in it – captured with wry equanimity – renowned screenwriter and Garrel’s frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière died during the scripting stage.

Director: Philippe Garrel

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Film a Clef

Language: French

Country: France

Thursday 25 April 2024

Kayo Kayo Colour? (Which Colour?) [2023]

 Most films that attempt to demonstrate the experiences of marginalized communities have a propensity for depicting them as either angry or exploited “victims”. The more authentic, meaningful and nuanced representation, however, might instead be to delineate their lives in their mundaneness, ordinariness, vulnerabilities and everyday emotions. Such an approach – formally and politically – brings to mind such gems as Bresson’s Mouchette, Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, McQueen’s Lovers Rock, etc. Shahrukhkhan Chavada – who was born in the year of DDLJ’s release and named as such by his mom who’s a fan of the Bollywood superstar – opted for that quietly radical approach, perhaps as an expression of personal and collective resistance, in his remarkable debut feature Kayo Kayo Colour? Shot using long static takes in austere monochrome, on location, resorting to minimalist faux-vérité aesthetics, echoing restrained humanism, and employing a non-professional cast consisted of real-life couples and siblings playing as such onscreen, this film bore hallmarks of Italian neorealism, Iranian cinema, Lav Diaz and observational documentaries, thus revealing not just the filmmaker’s social and political consciousness, but his eclectic cinematic influences too. With its title indicating a children’s game – ironically, one that involves spotting colours – it portrayed 1 ½ days in the life of a working-class Muslim family, comprising of Razzak (Imtiyaz Shaikh), who’s hoping to purchase an autorickshaw, his wife Raziya (Samina Shaikh), who manages household chores, daughter Ruba who’s craving for an aerated beverage, son Faiz, and Razzak’s aged parents. They stay at an overpacked ghetto in Ahmedabad and bear scars of the 2002 pogrom, even though these get only fleetingly mentioned, and the day – that would witness a despotic governmental proscription – devolves into a bleakly consequential one for them.

Director: Shahrukhkhan Chavada

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Family Drama/Political Drama

Language: Gujarati/Hindi

Country: India

Monday 22 April 2024

Aattam (The Play) [2023]

 Aattam is based on the topic of sexual harassment at workplace. But, what made Anand Ekarshi’s assured debut feature an especially riveting and nuanced work, was in its manifestation of how this gets doubted, trivialized, and responded to in varying shades of offensiveness, insensitivity and expediency, through behavioural triggers that’re at times even subliminal in nature on account of normalized patriarchal tendencies.  That, in turn, can make even a seemingly safe and progressive workplace inherently problematic and fragile. And that’s not all. The director made the courageous decision to depict the proceedings through a multiplicity of male gazes, thus making it all the more visceral, and which he smartly filmed with elements of a locked room mystery and quasi-judicial thriller. The setting is an avant-garde theatre troupe, whose members pursue diverse professions – both white-collared and working class – and therefore belong to different economic classes, but bound by their love for the stage, even though it can’t sustain their livelihoods. However, it predominantly comprises of men, with Anjali (Zarin Shihab), who’s in a complicated relationship with a fellow actor (Vinay Forrt) in the midst of a messy divorce, being the only exception. Upon the successful staging of their latest play, they have a celebratory party where she gets molested by one of her colleagues. The men in the group assemble for an investigation into the accusation and alignment on how they should deal with the alleged perpetrator. The exchanges, however, take unpredictable turns with each new accusation, counter-accusation, rationale, revelation, and unanticipated extrinsic developments. The film ended on a brilliantly metatextual note where we finally witness the interpretation and representation of the proceedings thus far from the sole woman’s perspective.

Director: Anand Ekarshi

Genre: Drama/Chamber Drama/Mystery

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Saturday 20 April 2024

Joram [2023]

 Devashish Makhija boldly combined bleak social observations and scorching political inquiries with genre elements and narrative urgency – thus smartly overlaying popular narrative forms on subaltern themes – in Joram. It quite ferociously commented on the unabated marginalization of the already marginalized tribal community, through the rancid politics of “development” and brute power of the state machinery – albeit, in the garb of a taut chase, revenge and survival thriller. Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) is a migrant construction worker living a squalid existence in Mumbai along with his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee). He, unbeknownst to those around him, had a combustible past life – he was once a member of a rebel guerilla outfit in the Jharkhand forests that was engaged in a violent battle with the political-industrial nexus to prevent the appropriation of their lands – which he’d fled from to escape the cycle of violence and its eventual extermination by the state. His past, however, catches up with him when he gets identified by a vengeful tribal politician (Smita Tambe) – her monstrosity amplified by her collaboration with those who’re engaged in the annihilation of her community – who has his wife brutally murdered and compels him to go on the run. A reluctant cop (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who hasn’t lost his moral compass despite the mucky environment surrounding him, is tasked with liquidating the helpless man. The suspension of disbelief that the chase necessitates – especially Dasru’s nightmarish odyssey along with an infant – becomes a relatively minor footnote in this canvas laced with fury, anxiety, disdain and loss. Dasru’s bafflement upon seeing his cherished land transformed into desolate dystopia – lush forests stripped into barren mines and rivers guzzled by dams – made for a particularly haunting imprint.

Director: Devashish Makhija

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Thursday 18 April 2024

The Zone of Interest [2023]

 Jonathan Glazer’s chilling examination of the co-existence of mundane and monstrous – and shattering manifestation of Hannah Arendt’s powerful phrase from her seminal reportage Eichmann in Jerusalem – was as much a meditation on the Holocaust where industrialized extermination was perpetuated by white-collar bureaucrats zealously committed to overachieving their quotas and targets, as a devastating indictment of the complicity of the rest through wilful denial of genocide. The film’s title, aside from its reference to the coinage by the Nazi forces to describe the areas surrounding the Auschwitz camps, therefore also sardonically demonstrated people’s propensity for being oblivious to and even being apologists for the killings of those not belonging to their “zones of interest”. The latter aspect was emphasized by Glazer’s moral courage in expressing solidarity with Palestinians and “Not in My Name” campaign. Loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel, it depicted – through electrifying and formally rigorous scene compositions, virtuoso sound design, and a meticulously shaped script developed through a decade’s research – the unsettling domesticity and ordinariness of Rudolph Höss (an eerily unassuming Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (a frighteningly brilliant Sandra Hüller) who with their kids reside in an idyllic home adjacent to the death camp. Consequently, while the camera never looks beyond the walls, what’s happening there is obliquely and viscerally indicated through discomfiting minutiae, which made it an especially clinical and disturbing evocation of malevolent apathy. Glazer found the premise – demystification of evil by situating the film as “a story of here and now”, rather than “as something safely in the past” – so relentlessly dark that he interspersed it with stirring acts of resistance by 12-year-old Polish girl Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, who he’d met shortly before her death.

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Family Drama

Language: German/Polish/Yiddish

Country: UK

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Afire (Roter Himmel) [2023]

 Afire, Christian Petzold’s smouldering and mesmeric exploration of artistic aspirations/inadequacies, creative process and self-discovery, might well be his most beguiling film to date. The Rohmeresque conversational style, languid intimacy of its setting, and unfolding relationships that’re charged yet mellow – attributes which likened it to a dry comedy of manners meets lazy hangout film, and therefore decidedly removed from his prior films – stunningly pivoted into a more melancholic, moody and elusive work by its end with hints of ecological commentary, splashes of bittersweet unrequited yearning and dazzling metafictional elements that infused new meanings into the proceedings thus far. The second chapter in his planned trilogy on mythical elements transposed into contemporaneous settings – Undine had water as its motif, while it’s fire here – and his third collaboration with the effortlessly effervescent Paula Beer (their first film together was Transit, an exquisite interpretation of Anna Seghers’ extraordinary novel of the same name), it’s centred on grumpy, irascible and self-centred writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) who’s come over to a summer holiday lodge on the Baltic Sea, along with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), for an artists’ retreat of sorts where he plans to complete his second novel before meeting his editor while Felix works on his photography portfolio. With a nature alternating between edgy and pompous, he becomes subliminally conflicted upon finding himself in the company of the vivacious and nonchalant Nadja (Beer), who sells ice creams, has noisy romping sessions in the night, and harbours a hidden literary side; meanwhile, the ominous foreshadowing of forest fires looms in the backdrop. Buoyed by sun-kissed photography and a sparingly used score, this is a deceptively electrifying work by a filmmaker breaking new artistic grounds.

Director: Christian Petzold

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: German

Country: Germany

Saturday 13 April 2024

Green Border [2023]

 Celebrated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s powerful and harrowing film Green Border riled up her country’s ruling right-wing polity to the point that that they launched a poisonous campaign to vilify its filmmaker for her fearless political convictions. This, of course, wasn’t surprising, even if its magnitude was shocking. The film is a ferocious battle cry highlighting the plight of immigrants fleeing their homes with tenuous hopes and scant means at their disposal, and therefore advocating infinite empathy towards this vulnerable community, as opposed to dehumanizing them, inflicting violence and turning them into political pawns; the ruling coalition government, unfortunately, is fervid in its anti-immigrant stance and their border military forces have been treating the refugees with exactly the kind of brutality that the film unflinchingly depicted. Shot in stunning B/W which permeated urgency and authenticity to the proceedings, this epic work captured a flurry of perspectives through interlocking narrative strands. It began by focusing on a Syrian family and an Afghan woman arriving in Belarus with the objective of crossing over to Poland, and therefore EU, only to realize that, like other Middle-Eastern and African refugees, they’ve become fodder for a nightmarish ping-pong between the antagonistic border forces who’re competing with each other on savagery. The focus then goes on to encompass a conflicted Polish guard, a defiant humanitarian team spearheaded by two courageous sisters, and a feisty psychiatrist who decides to take radical action. The film, that ended with glimpses of Ukrainian refugees being welcome into the country by thousands – as they should be, thus ruefully underscoring the ironic and hypocritical underpinnings to this tragic issue – tempered its scorching dissent with electrifying solidarity and a sliver of hope.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: Arabic/Polish/English

Country: Poland

Thursday 11 April 2024

Terrestrial Verses [2023]

 The personal couldn’t have been more political, and vice versa, in director-writer duo Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari’s dry, sardonic and deceptively unassuming film Terrestrial Verses. Through a deadpan mix of episodic form, sparse storytelling, the distinctive flavour of documentary reportage, and biting straight-faced satire, it provided kaleidoscopic glimpses into a society where ordinary and everyday folks must constantly grapple with authoritarianism, lopsided power structures, inexorable patriarchy, religious dogmatism, moral policing, casual misogyny, ham-handed censorship and crushing bureaucracy. Comprising of ten short vignettes shot in static square frames along the lines of talking head interviews, wherein those in positions of authority and/or power are off camera while regular citizens – subjected to the former’s decidedly absurdist brunt – are facing the screen during their one-on-one interactions, we see an obstinate parent of a newborn baby, a carefree little girl, a defiant female school student, an aged woman who’s lost her dog, an infuriated woman cab driver with cropped hair, a perplexed man with Rumi’s poetry tattooed on his body, a harassed female interviewee, a diffident job-seeker, an exasperated filmmaker striving to get his script cleared – which added a mordant self-reflexive touch as both filmmakers, like many of their subversive contemporaries, have faced such a scenario – and an antiquated man who finally witnesses the societal foundations literally crumbling. Made and distributed using subterfuge in order to evade the country’s restrictive censorship laws, the film used dry and bleak humour to demonstrate the lives of people shorn of personal agency and being governed from birth till date with iron-fisted control. The film, therefore, can be considered as reflective of the theocratic modern-day Iran as of any Kafkaesque totalitarian regime across geographies and eras.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Directors: Ali Asgari & Alireza Khatami

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Social Satire

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Beyond the Sight & Sound Canon

"They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?" (shortened, TPSDT) - one of the most referenced film websites out there - had approached a number of film critics & cinephiles in Aug 2023, incl. yours truly, with a truly ambitious objective. They wanted to create a list of essential/greatest feature-length films that hadn't received even a single vote in the 2022 Sight & Sound poll.

Their final list - compiling which must have been a monster task - was published yesterday, and it can be seen, savoured & referenced at their here. Furthermore, out of the overall 839 individual ballots that they received, they've published 273, which they've labelled as "critics' ballots.

Glad & humbled to share that the list which I had shared with them features among those 273 (which includes only 6 individuals from India), and my submission can be seen here. I've also posted them below, along with links to my reviews where available.

As someone who loves exploring & savouring films that're "beyond the canon", I didn't really think twice before expressing my willingness to participate in this exciting adventure. I'd participated in a similar "Beyond the Canon" exercise (conducted by Iain Stott) a few years back, and memories of that were revived in the process.

However, only once I sat down to chalk out my list in Dec of last year, did I realize the daunting task that lay ahead of me. The reason being, a staggering 4,366 films were ruled out from being included in one's submission. The next challenge, of course, was to limit the count of films in one's list to no more than 100.

p.s. On hindsight I'm realizing that there are a few key omissions in my list - either because they skipped my mind or I missed assigning the required importance to them or saw them subsequently. But then, that's part of the fun for a crazy endeavour such as this, and hence that's okay.